How We Got Here: A Tale of Forgiveness, Redemption, and Hope

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It’s quite possibly the biggest sports story that this city has ever seen. I’m dead serious. Sure, it’s not as if we have a gloriously successful history to compare it against, but even if one of our miserable franchises had actually sprinkled in a championship or two these past fifty years it still would probably be the biggest. The best basketball player on the planet has returned to the place where he began his career. To the team that he elevated to heights that it had never before seen. To the region that he calls home. The past few days and weeks have taken me through just about every conceivable emotion and have left me in a place that I’d never thought I’d be. LeBron James is back with the Cavs and I am completely fine with it. More than fine with it, actually. I’m excited. And there is no way that I would ever have thought I would feel like I do today after the events that transpired four years ago.

So how in the hell did we get here? Really. How did we get here? I would have never imagined that I’d ever feel anything for LeBron other than vitriol. And even if I conceded in my mind that time would most likely dampen any fiery hate that I felt, there was no way that I ever saw wanting or welcoming him back to Cleveland. I can’t speak for all of Cleveland, but I get the sense that most people probably felt that way, too. And, again, I can’t speak for all of Cleveland, but I get the sense that most people are sharing my sentiment today. In fact, I’d say my sentiment is actually skewing towards the more reserved as it pertains to Clevelander’s feelings on the return of LeBron. So the question still stands. How did we get here? How did I get here?

We all remember “The Decision”. Where we were, how we felt, all of it. We also all remember the teams that we have had to watch since LeBron left for Miami. From the abysmally frustrating team that fell short of expectations this past year to the just plain abysmal team that took the court back in the fall of 2010. I don’t mean to rehash these things just to resurrect the same tired narratives that are all too often associated with this city and its sports teams.

I only bring them up to provide perspective as to where we were. The depths that we had sunk to only four short years ago. For much of that time I was down in Columbus. I left for college in 2005 and didn’t return back home for seven years. I had to watch from a distance as my hometown was devastated by the sub prime mortgage crisis and the subsequent economic crash. I followed a government scandal and a dilapidated bridge on the verge of collapse and all the other events that were unfolding from a distance. It was a painful time for Cleveland that, for whatever reason, felt even more painful because I wasn’t there.

There was a glimmer of hope throughout all of it, though. We had one hell of a basketball player. Which, in turn, meant that we had a basketball team that was always in contention. The one thing you could count on while all else seemed to be crumbling was that the Cavs would be in the playoffs and would have chance to deliver the city its first championship in decades. The identity of Cleveland has been intertwined with its sports teams for a long, long time. Those Lebron Cavs teams were no different. They were a shining beacon for a city and region caught in a terrible storm.

Until it came to a crashing end on that July night. I was as dejected as a Cleveland sports fan as I had ever been. As the months and years unfolded I went through all the five stages of grief. I was in denial, I was depressed. I was angry. I guess I didn’t really bargain. That sort of doesn’t apply here. Plus, I was so damn angry that bargaining really wasn’t an option. I went through all of them up to the point of acceptance. All the while LeBron was down in Florida winning. Winning and maturing. While I had to watch garbage basketball and debate with my brother whether Luke Walton or Omri Casspi was the worse player, Lebron was growing into the undisputed best player in the league and collecting awards and championships along the way.

But now we’re here. The momentum of a return has steadily built since Miami was eliminated in the NBA Finals and something that I wouldn’t have thought possible in a million years has actually happened. After all the malicious things that I said and thought. That most of us said and thought. After the contentious atmospheres of those games that he played back in Cleveland and all of the energy spent rooting against Miami in the playoffs. After everything that happened throughout the past four years, I’ve come full circle. I’ve grown up and matured. Just like LeBron and just like the city of Cleveland.

Nothing will ever change the events that transpired four years ago. I would say that all parties involved made some missteps and did things that they aren’t necessarily proud of. But those events have led us to a reunion that is the stuff of legend. I mentioned earlier that I think my reaction tends to skew toward the more reserved when measured up against the reactions of my fellow Clevelanders. I listened to the reaction all day Friday after the official announcement went out, and most of the people I heard were beside themselves with happiness and excitement. There were exasperated phone calls and tears of joy all around.

I’m not exactly sure why, but I did not have that kind of reaction. It has nothing to do with my previous feelings on LeBron. At least I don’t think it does. I’ve completely made peace with that. There’s probably a good chance that I’ve been permanently scarred from the heartbreaks that I’ve suffered in my relatively short time as a Cleveland sports fan. The fact that I didn’t share the same reaction as most doesn’t mean that I don’t understand it. I do. In fact, I love it. I love that this city is so excited. I may not be able to fully share in that excitement, but I really couldn’t be happier that LeBron is coming home. I’ll get there. I’ll get to that overly excited state eventually. It just may take a bit longer most.

This is something that I’ve wrestled with for awhile now, though. Not only how I felt about LeBron at any particular time throughout the past few years, but would forgiveness ever be a possibility? On all ends. And what would be the feeling if he ever did come back? How would any of us rationalize it? I’m sure those are questions that are running through the heads of Clevelanders and people all around the country.

There’s really a very simple answer to those questions. At least for me. LeBron James coming home is what is best for Cleveland. It’s what’s best for this city that I care so much about. The most obvious part of that will be the financial impact that LeBron coming back will have for the city. The amount of tax revenue, added jobs, and activity that this will bring to Cleveland is enormous. All of those things will also have ancillary benefits for the city and for all of the people who call it home. First and foremost that fact needs to be acknowledged.

In addition to that, there’s a more incalculable benefit to the overall psyche of this city. It’s no secret that Cleveland has been ridiculed and dragged through the mud for the past half century. While I would contend that it’s mostly the ignorance of people who have never spent a single second here, it really doesn’t matter. The negative perception not only affects the way that we act and feel about ourselves, it has a tangible effect on the prosperity of the city and region. It’s hard to build actual momentum here when outsiders have such a terrible view of Cleveland and the people who call it home have been beaten down to the point where even they start to buy into the negativity.

It may be a ridiculous facet of our society, but the success of a city’s sports franchises has a significant impact on the prosperity and perception of that city. Having one of the most famous and talented athletes in the entire world decide to come to Cleveland is huge for all of us. And it also means that we have a legitimate chance to break our fifty year title drought. Not only is that a punchline that is used against us constantly, it’s something that is incredibly important to all of us. I would say that my main reasoning is the overall civic pride that this decision instills and the economic impact it will bring, but winning a championship is completely intertwined with that civic pride and will, in turn, bring additional economic benefits to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. The pursuit of that elusive championship will undoubtedly gain significance when we’re approaching the NBA playoffs next spring, but right now I’m more focused on how this most recent decision is going to benefit this city.

They say that time heals all wounds. As I grow older, I’m becoming more and more of a believer in that sentiment. The anger and depression that I felt for years has been replaced with feelings of quiet satisfaction and cautious optimism. I’m not the same as I used to be. None of us are. It’s impossible to not have been changed over the past four years. And the essay that LeBron wrote to announce that he is coming back home, coupled with the reaction by the city that he once spurned, is the ultimate story of forgiveness and hope. I truly feel that this is the best possible thing that could have come out of that ill fated announcement on ESPN and the years that followed. Nothing will ever quite be the same as it was. There’s no way that it could be. None of us are the same. But just because things won’t be the same doesn’t mean that they won’t be great. I think they will be. For me, for you, for LeBron, and for Cleveland. They say that time heals all wounds. Look around Cleveland right now and you’ll see just how true that is. LeBron is back and we can close the book on one of the most depressing periods of time in this city’s history. I can’t believe that we’re here, but we are. And it’s time to start writing that next chapter for Cleveland, Ohio. Something tells me it’s going to be good.

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